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Keep horse time fun by avoiding injury

The Reno Rodeo kicks up its hooves every June with some of the country’s best rodeo performances, so summer is a great time to think about safety around horses. And we know a thing or two about horse safety, as we are part of the Justin Sports Medicine Team caring for rodeo pro cowboys and cowgirls. 

While watching rodeo from the stands is relatively safe, riding and working around horses poses some dangers. One study reports that horseback riding is more likely to result in injury than motorcycle riding, skiing, football and rugby. Due to the size of most horses, many horse-related injuries could be fatal or leave a person paralyzed. However, most of these dangers can be mitigated with some caution and common sense.

In honor of the Reno Rodeo, we talked with Dr. Travis Kieckbusch, an orthopaedic surgeon at Great Basin Orthopaedics (GBO) specializing in sports medicine, a Reno native and rodeo enthusiast. He offers tips on avoiding horse-related injuries for everyone from the novice rider to professional cowboy.

On The Ground

While horseback riding can be dangerous, potential for injury starts in the stable. Horses are big! They range from just over 800 pounds to 2,200 pounds—the weight of a small car. They have a lot of power in their legs and can move unpredictably. Here are some tips to avoid injuries when working and moving around horses:

  • Approach a horse at the shoulder. Never approach a horse from behind as they are likely to be surprised and may kick or lunge suddenly. If they can see you, they are less likely to get spooked. 
  • Feed a horse with an open hand. Fingers can be mistaken for something edible and get injured in the feeding process. Put their snack (apples and carrots are favorites) on a flat outstretched palm.
  • Read a horse’s mood. A horse’s ears are the best indicator of its mood. Horses pin their ears back flat against their head when they are aggravated.

In The Saddle

The best way to keep from getting injured when horseback riding is to train well. “There’s a lot to know about horseback riding,” said Dr. Kieckbusch. “You’re already at a higher risk for injury because you’re dealing with very large animals and you’re off the ground. Being in shape, staying flexible and having the right equipment will help riders avoid injuries.” Because horseback riding is a full-body sport, it’s important to take the same steps you would before any workout, including stretching and hydrating.”

Riders should also keep these tips in mind.

  • Horses are living animals. They react to their environment like any other creature. It’s important to pay attention to how the horse is reacting and be on the lookout for anything on the trail or in your riding area—like snakes, loose dogs or errant branches—that could startle the horse. They will run at the first sign of trouble, with or without their rider.
  • Check your equipment before mounting. One sure fire way to end up on the ground is to climb onto a horse with a loose girth. Making sure the saddle’s girth is tight and the stirrups are adjusted for your height before mounting helps avoid injury.
  • In the event of a fall, try to roll out of the way. Because horses are flight animals, it is important to roll out of the path of a horse in the event of a fall to avoid being trampled.

At The Rodeo

Rodeo is different than your average horseback ride. Rodeo includes high-risk events like bull riding, steer wrestling, and bareback riding. GBO surgeon Dr. Kieckbusch volunteers his time as part of the Justin Sports Medicine Team, assessing Reno Rodeo riders who fall or sustain other injuries while performing.

In many rodeo events, riders are bound to the animal, increasing the risk for injury. The most important tip provided by Dr. Kieckbusch: Listen to your body. Many athletes in rodeo will ignore pain they feel in the interest of continuing to compete, furthering the severity of their injury. Ignoring pain or pushing through pain could cause serious and permanent damage.

How do you know when it’s serious? “Professional rodeo riders probably endure more pain than most people,” said Dr. Kieckbusch. “But if an injury is limiting your ability to perform and lasts for more than a day or so, then it’s probably time to be evaluated by a doctor.”
The rodeo is a Reno tradition and part of the legacy of the Wild West. Whether it’s for casual entertainment or serious competition, horseback riding and rodeo are serious sports. Safety should always be the top priority of any person engaging in horseback or rodeo sports. Many horse-related injuries can be avoided with proper precautions. If you have recently experienced a horse-related injury, contact Great Basin Orthopaedics to schedule a consultation.